Breach of Fiduciary Duty

Several courts have refused to hold churches and denominational agencies liable on the basis of a breach of a fiduciary duty for the sexual misconduct of a minister.

Church Law & Tax Report

Breach of Fiduciary Duty

Several courts have refused to hold churches and denominational agencies liable on the basis of a breach of a fiduciary duty for the sexual misconduct of a minister.

Key point 10-13.2. Several courts have refused to hold churches and denominational agencies liable on the basis of a breach of a fiduciary duty for the sexual misconduct of a minister. In some cases, this result is based on First Amendment considerations.

* A Connecticut court ruled that a priest and archdiocese were not liable on the basis of a breach of a fiduciary duty for the priest’s sexual relationship with an adult woman since no fiduciary duty arose under the circumstances. A 40-year-old woman (the “plaintiff”) with a long history of psychiatric and emotional problems sought out the “advice, counsel and friendship” of a priest. At the time, the priest was serving as an associate priest at a local church and was also an employee of the archdiocese. The plaintiff did not engage in formal counseling with the priest; rather, their relationship involved mainly recreational activities such as home visits, lunch and dinner dates, shopping trips, walks on the beach and trips to see movies. According to the plaintiff, the priest provided her emotional, spiritual and friendly support and that her “whole relationship” with him was one of counseling. At some point during their association, the priest became aware of her emotional problems and, nevertheless, engaged in a sexual relationship with her. The plaintiff alleged that she eventually ended the sexual aspect of their relationship after which the priest terminated all involvement with her.

The plaintiff sued the priest claiming that a fiduciary duty arose by virtue of the priest-parishioner relationship, and the priest breached this duty when, despite knowledge of her emotional problems, he engaged in “a close physical and intimate relationship” with her. The plaintiff also sued the archdiocese, claiming that it breached its duty to supervise the priest. Specifically, the plaintiff alleged that the archdiocese “knew or should have known that the priest had engaged in inappropriate behavior with the plaintiff” and, as a result, the archdiocese was liable for the priest’s breach of a fiduciary duty. A trial court dismissed the claims against the priest and archdiocese, and the plaintiff appealed.

Breach of a fiduciary duty

The appeals court defined a fiduciary or confidential relationship as “a relationship that is characterized by a unique degree of trust and confidence between the parties, one of whom has superior knowledge, skill or expertise and is under a duty to represent the interests of the other. The superior position of the fiduciary or dominant party affords him great opportunity for abuse of the confidence reposed in him.” The court acknowledged that “various state and federal courts” have concluded that a clergy-parishioner relationship may constitute a fiduciary relationship, but in each of those cases “something more than a general clergy-parishioner relationship was present.” For example, “the existence of a formal pastoral counseling relationship between a clergy member and a parishioner has been deemed significant in determining whether a fiduciary relationship was created. The court summarized the following precedent:

  • Colorado. (1) Court found that a fiduciary relationship existed between a clergyman and plaintiff, in part, because the clergyman had served as counselor to plaintiff. Moses v. Diocese of Colorado, 863 P.2d 310 (Colo. 1993). (2) A fiduciary duty was created when a priest undertook to counsel plaintiffs. Destefano v. Grabrian, 763 P.2d 275 (Colo. 1988).
  • Federal district court in Iowa. Court dismissed plaintiff’s breach of fiduciary duty claim because plaintiff simply alleged clergy-parishioner relationship, not counseling relationship. Doe v. Hartz, 52 F. Supp.2d 1027 (N.D. Iowa 1999).
  • New Jersey. The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded that a breach of fiduciary duty claim arising out of the sexual relationship between a clergyman and a parishioner who was seeking marital counseling was permissible under New Jersey law. In so doing, the court placed considerable weight on the fact that the plaintiff was engaged in a specific pastoral counseling relationship with the clergyman. According to that court, “trust and confidence are vital to the counseling relationship between parishioner and pastor. By accepting a parishioner for counseling, a pastor also accepts the responsibility of a fiduciary.” The court explained that “establishing a fiduciary duty essentially requires proof that a parishioner trusted and sought counseling from the pastor.” F.G. v. MacDonell, 696 A.2d 697 (1997).
  • Federal appeals court. A federal appeals court permitted a breach of fiduciary duty claim to proceed against a clergyman because the fiduciary duty allegedly arose out of a counseling relationship, not simply a clergy-parishioner relationship. Sanders v. Casa View Baptist Church, 134 F.3d 331 (5th Cir. 1998).

The court concluded that “something more” than the general clergy-parishioner relationship must be present to establish a fiduciary relationship, and it declined the plaintiff’s invitation to establish a fiduciary relationship “between all clergy and their congregants.” The court concluded that the plaintiff’s relationship with the priest in this case was not fiduciary in nature because it “was not characterized by the unique degree of trust and confidence required of a fiduciary relationship.” In particular, the court noted that the plaintiff had not alleged a formal pastoral counseling relationship between herself and the priest. Rather, she claimed that her “whole association” with the priest was one of “counseling.” The court disagreed:

The plaintiff’s interactions with the priest were largely social. She did not meet him for specific counseling appointments, but, rather, the two went on lunch and dinner dates, shopping trips, walks on the beach and trips to see movies. Also, the plaintiff has admitted that many of the conversations she considered counseling took place immediately after mass with other congregants present and that the counseling primarily involved discussions about their relationship …. While the priest may have counseled the plaintiff from time to time, as a priest may for any parishioner, he was not her counselor. Moreover … the plaintiff was well over the age of majority throughout the time of their consensual interactions. While we do not condone the defendant’s behavior, we conclude that no fiduciary relationship existed between him and the plaintiff; consequently, no fiduciary duty was breached.


The court also dismissed the plaintiff’s negligent supervision claim against the archdiocese on the ground that there can be no negligent supervision if an employee does not engage in wrongful behavior. Since the priest had not breached a fiduciary duty, the archdiocese could not be liable on the basis of negligent supervision for his actions.

Application. This case is important because it is one of the most extensive discussions of the liability of ministers and churches for acts of sexual misconduct on the basis of a breach of a fiduciary duty. The court refused to find that a priest who was not involved in a counseling relationship with a church member has a fiduciary duty toward that person, and therefore the priest could not be liable on the basis of a breach of such a duty for any inappropriate sexual conduct. There may be other bases of liability, but not this one. Further, since the priest was not liable, the archdiocese could not be liable since its liability (whether on the basis of negligent hiring or supervision, or breach of a fiduciary duty) required that the priest’s acts be wrongful. Ahern v. Kappalumakkel, 903 A.2d 266 (Conn. App. 2006).

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